August 12, 2022

Make Pioneer the true Zombie format with Lurrus

You should play Lurrus more often.

I know: you constantly play Lurrus. I understand. I’m too. But you should play it even more than that. You should wake up with “press three, go get Lurrus” on your lips. You should adopt a cat from your local shelter and name it Lurry. You should try splashing it in a Temur deck. Rakdos Aggro in Modern, Vampires in Historic, Pioneer Burn, Karlov of the Phantom Council in Commander.

When building an untested deck, your first question should be “how do I warp the deck to fit Lurrus?” She is a Phyrexian Arena who attacks for three, one Palace seat with both modes active, an extra card in your hand at all times, an absolute powerhouse. Lurrus is one of the most commonly played threat/engines in Modern, banned in Legacy and Vintage, then unbanned in Vintage, a staple in Historic, and a mainstay in the current underdog format, Pioneer. And despite all this, she is still not respected enough.

My thesis here is that Lurrus doesn’t see as much game in Pioneer as he should. That’s to be expected – Pioneer itself isn’t seeing as much play as it should. Pioneer Challenger decks, while they don’t spin like Standard Challenger decks, languish on the shelves and sell at huge markdowns from online retailers. The price of Pioneer staples is stagnating (so now’s a great time to snag them on the savvy gamer). Magic Online and Arena kept the Standard, Modern, Limited, and Digital formats alive, and Commander players would always have discussions about how much power the tin can phones would have if the bombs dropped, so those formats have well withstood the pandemic. This leaves the most fringe formats – Premodern, Old School, Oathbreaker and Pioneer – out in the cold.

I trust Pioneer will bounce back. Recent reprints like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Runic Halo, and Lotus Cobra imply that Wizards wants to strengthen the format in the future, even if Pioneer Masters is on hiatus. Companions are a hindrance to the format — Lurrus, Yorion, and Jegantha all see consistent play at top levels — but I don’t see Wizards again admitting fault with the mechanic and banning them.

So this seems like the perfect opportunity to build for the format. While most of Magic’s attention is focused elsewhere, we can lay the groundwork for something new and powerful. Currently the best place for Lurrus in Pioneer is Burn/Red Deck Wins, redeeming the dead Dreadhorde Arcanists and Eidolons and get the last points with Viashino Pyromancer. It’s also great in Rakdos Aggro/Sacrifice, letting you dig up Kroxa for a pittance every turn. The combo of Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vow, however, led me to take a different approach.

Pioneer is sometimes referred to as the ‘zombie format’, so how about taking it literally? Zombies have been on the edge of Pioneer’s playability – we’re missing modern lords, but we have a myriad of two drops that work well with Lurrus. Appropriately, he’s basically a rotten version of Orzhov’s humans, but your mana is better and your resilience is greater for wipers and takedown. You can’t keep a good zombie down, especially when he’s constantly being redeemed by the most beloved/hated nightmare cat of them all.

Pioneer Zombies, Lurrus Companion

Our curve starts with twelve one-drops that work well together and allow us to maximize Thought taking perfectly at turn two. relentless death is the centerpiece of the game and the best reason to stay mono noir. In conjunction with Lurrus, Relentless Dead lets you loop out your best zombies while starting the beatdown early. The curve of the deck is weak, but we can maximize our mana every turn by buying back dead soldiers and adapting our more eccentric zombies like Relentless Dead and Corrupt Opponent– a good two drop that is even better in the late game with Lurrus.

Thanks to Lurrus, our curve is absurdly low, allowing us to cash in late drawn lands against Zombie tokens with Cryptbreaker and activate Eye Tyrant’s Hive Where mutechest. Unlike many tribal decks in Pioneer, we can’t layer lords with Mutatavault, but it’s still useful for Cryptbreaker and Dark hello and for taking some damage if they deal with your horde.

I was very impressed with Nasty return, which attacks fearlessly early on and can then be remelted with Lurrus or stapled to a Mutavault or Champion later on. It’s been twenty years since it was a staple, but I’d love a reprint of Withered wretch to fight boogeyman Izzet Phoenix. In the meantime, you will have to settle for a buffet silent tombstone and rotten meeting. The buffet is hyper-focused on Izzet Phoenix, so adapt if necessary. Graf Reaver outperformed as a Narset Slayer who can be revived multiple times per turn with Lurrus, potentially shooting multiple planeswalkers in succession.

We could potentially splash for Company collected– it’s basically free with Slithherbore Trail and overgrown grave– but I find we’re better off spending our mana on recursion and threats. With twenty-nine zombies, you’re unlikely to sniff out company, so it’s well worth exploring. Similarly, splash Red for Dreadhorde Arcanist is plausible – it doesn’t fight any of our strategies and can backtrack on Thoughtseize or, hilariously, Dark Salvation. As I continue to explore the archetype, I can build on one of these microstrategies, but I wanted to completely nail the mono black zombies before branching out.

By building around Lurrus, we lose Colossus Diregraf, Headless Horseman, Rotting Regisaur, Liliana, the last hope, and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. We’re also losing the Zombie Lords in Pioneer—death baron and Risen Executioner. Losing none of that is insurmountable (although, frankly, Headless Rider would be fine).

More troubling at the start is the fact that we can’t run Liliana, spared from death, which seems to be the keystone of a Zombie deck. Thing is, after extensively testing zombies in Modern, four mana is a huge ask, and it looks better on paper than it actually plays. His loss is more thematic than playful. Likewise, I chose to avoid Lazotep Reaver. While creating two zombie bodies for Cryptbreaker is powerful, it’s a more Lord-oriented style of card. This deck is a valid way to grow zombies in Pioneer, but we’re aiming for a steady, tenacious long game rather than an aggressive run.

I’m having a blast with Pioneer, alternating between lotus field and simpler aggro decks like Lurrus Zombies. I love the Lotus Field deck because it proves that, like Crabs, Magic will always evolve into a solitaire combo deck. Like someone who’s been exhumed Ulamog Grinder in Pauper, Given illusions of grandeur in extended and inverted in Oracle of Thassa In Pioneer, there’s an exciting antagonism, the pleasure of grief, to a combo deck, especially in the way they appear against the odds and in opposition to the banning of other combo decks.

Inverter, Kethis, Lotus Field – these are complex, carefully crafted decks that require full knowledge of the deck’s possible interactions and lines of play. Zombies, however, only require a curve and enough space to land a few quick shamblers before your opponent has their defenses and, in this deck’s case, Lurrus’ resilience. It’s a nice break from the trying combo decks, and it has legs: they may be rotten, rigor mortis’ed legs, but legs nonetheless.

A permanent resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has been playing Magic since picking up a Dark Stalker off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for non-profit organizations as an educational strategy developer, and in his off hours enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.


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